Better apart? Why all age services might not be helping anyone

(Photo: Diocese of Portsmouth)
Messy Church: a good alternative to all-age services?

Here's a question: all-age services. Let's be honest – how many of us, adults or children, actually enjoy them? How many of us, on the other hand, take a sneaky Sunday off or sit through them with gritted teeth, wishing we had?

The trouble is that many of us feel terribly guilty about children in church, and worry about whether we're treating them right. They are the Church of the present, not the Church of the future, after all, we say, thinking we are being awfully original. Surely we should be integrating them more with rest of us? Isn't it a bit patronising, sending them off to a back room while we get on with the serious business in the 'real' church? Let's do everything together!

The consequence is that we end up with a half-hearted compromise that satisfies no-one. The children are bored by the bits that go over their heads; the adults are embarrassed by all those action songs and colouring in. Everyone feels vaguely dissatisfied, and no-one has entered whole-heartedly into the worship of God.

I was once part of a church where all-age services were done superlatively well, by a minister who was also a professional teacher. The cringe factor was minimal; everything possible was done to include everyone at their own level. Then we noticed that families were tending to stay away when it was family service week. Why? "The children don't like it; they want to be out at the back with their friends."

So let's think a bit harder about this. Isn't it a bit suspicious that the drive for all-age services really began in the 1970s, when numbers of children attending our Sunday schools began to plummet? So are we really doing this not because we have asked children what they want, but because we are scared that if we don't do something different with them we'll lose them?

Well, as Sarah Palin famously said to Barack Obama, "How's that workin' out for ya?" Numbers of children in our churches have fallen through the floor (Methodists have lost more than half in the last 10 years). I'm not suggesting that family services are part of the problem – but they certainly don't seem to be part of the solution.

So here are some suggestions:

1. If you're running a monthly family service on a Sunday, ask people what they really think of it. Adults and children. Anonymously.

2. Don't be downhearted at the response. Do something different – really different, like Messy Church on a Saturday afternoon, rather than trying to mix oil and water on a Sunday.

3. Work on making your Sunday service really inclusive for the time the children are in. Think about having them in at the end rather than at the beginning so you can go out with a blessing together.

4. Believe in preaching. I suspect one of the reasons for the popularity of family services is bad preaching, or preaching based on a wrong paradigm – that it's 'teaching', complete with PowerPoint. Once we infantilise preaching, there's nothing left to defend – but God speaks from heart to heart, with words on fire.

5. Don't try to compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world will always do it better.

6. Think about what will really keep children within the family of faith. Unforced friendships across the generations, conversations, space to grow at their own pace knowing that they have the freedom to reject the whole thing if they want to.

If you have a family service that works, God bless you. If it doesn't, feel free not to feel guilty. What counts most is quality relationships; all else is optional.

Rev Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and freelance writer.

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